Sovereign Harmony and Biopolitical Frequency: Or, what Attali and LMFAO can teach us about neoliberalism
“Every major social rupture has been preceded by an essential mutation in the codes of music, in its mode of audition, and in its economy” (Attali, Noise 10).
So I’ve been thinking more about this idea of “transmission,” and I’ve come to the following question: If, as people like Rancière and Attali assert, liberal/sovereign/juridical regimes idealize the notion of “harmony,” is “transmission” or “frequency” a particularly neoliberal/biopolitical ideal or paradigm? This question is somewhat Attali-an itself, and I want to attempt an Attali-esque response. By “Attali-an,” I mean that the question follows Jacques Attali’s claim in the epigraph, i.e., that we can read the “codes of society” (norms, epistemes, modes of power, hegemonies, etc.) in the “codes of music” (organization, epistemology, political economy, aesthetics).“The code of music,” he argues, “simulates the accepted rules of society” (Attali 29). So here I want to think about “harmony” and “transmission” as both modes of social organization, and modes of musical organization. I’m trying out the argument that harmony:liberalism::transmission:neoliberal biopolitics (emphasis on “trying out”—I’m not entirely sure it works. But it’s worth considering).
Back to the question: First, what do I mean by “idealizing the notion of ‘harmony’”? I’m thinking of harmony as a mode of measurement or distribution. A “harmonic” distribution is one concerned with balance: everything is in its right place. These places might not be “equal,” but everything is in the place appropriate to it: people with copper in their soul do menial labor, and people with gold in their soul are philosopher kings, for example. Plato explicitly calls this “harmony”—e.g., in Eryximachus’s speech in the Symposium. Rancière calls this a “metapolitical” distribution of sensibility. In music, we might think of those arguments over temperament as fitting this notion of “harmony.” The arguments over temperament were really about how best to distribute or divide the octave into whole- and half-steps for a total of 12 pitches. Jacques Attali also explicitly identifies “harmony” as a paradigm for classical liberal political philosophy. “The entire history of tonal music, like that of classical political economy, amounts to an attempt to make people believe in…the faith that there is harmony in order” (Attali 46). This idea of order is one of “equilibrium” (Attali 59). Equilibrium is not, importantly, mathematical equality. Equilibrium is not treating everyone the same: it is putting everyone and everything in hierarchical order.This hierarchical order positions apparently “different” phenomena in relation to the central, hegemonic term (i.e., tonality organizes all pitches functionally/hierarchically in relation to the tonic). As Attali explains:
An ideology of scientific harmony thus imposes itself, the mask of a hierarchical organization from which dissonances (conflicts and struggles) are forbidden, unless they are merely marginal and highlight the quality of the channeling order” (Attali 61).
As in political liberalism, difference is tolerated if and only if it can be assimilated or expressed in terms of the centered, controlling, hegemonic term. So, racial difference is “OK” as long as its diversity doesn’t decenter whiteness, and in fact serves whiteness and white people. So in the same way that liberal multiculturalism claims to be “harmony between divergent interests,” (Attali, 65), but is actually completely intolerant to actualdifference, “harmonic” regimes generally accept only that which can be mapped hierarchically in relation to the centered/hegemonic term. It is a “combinatorics” (Attali 65) that can only “combine” that which has already been placed in terms of the “common denominator.”
Interestingly, Attali notes that “harmony” eventually “gives way to statistics, macroeconomics, and probability” (65). An economist in the Mitterand administration, Attali explains this new form of organization, administration, and analysis not in the political terms of liberalism, but in economicterms. So, while Foucault focuses on the kind of power manifested in the use statistics and the human sciences to administer populations, Attali focuses directly on the instruments used to perform this administration. He describes “the probalist transcending of combinatorics,” (83), i.e., the neoliberal sublation of classical liberal “harmony.” In this new actuarial regime of probability and statistics, “power establish[es], on the basis of a technocratic language, a more efficient channelization of the productions of the imaginary forming the elements of a code of cybernetic repetition, a society without signification—a repetitive society” (Attali, 83). Statistics are used to “cut the fat,” the “fat” here being represented content. Power no longer has to produce spectacle (as in sovereignty), nor does it have to concern itself with producing “truths” for us to discover about ourselves (as in discipline). Foregoing mediation through content, power can get straight down to the business of reproducing its formal relations, i.e., its structural and institutional networks.
I think that the regime Attali labels “repetition” is actually a regime of biopolitical administration. It’s not the regime of mechanical reproduction, but the order of the bell curve and the elimination of risk/aleatory instances. So, the elimination of randomness may make it seem like everything is merely a clone or repetition of everything else, but what Attali means by “repetition” is not what we commonly think of as “repetition” (copying, looping, etc.). Attali’s not actually talking about mass production; he’s talking about biopolitics. What he means by “repetition” is “the existence of an all-encompassing truth, of a society that desires to make its simple management the matrix of its meaning…the statistical organization of repetition” (Attali 113/4; emphasis mine). Attalian repetition is not copying; it’s statistical management. But what do statistics “manage”? Outliers, whatever can’t be controlled for, whatever breaks the curve—what Foucaultians call “aleatory events.” “the administrator in a repetitive society” is tasked with “managing chance” (Attali 114). Of course, Attali connects this “management of chance” to mid-century avant-garde composers, like Glass (whom he cites) and Cage. Though the latter explicitly focused his work on chance and aleatory processes, Attali notes that “even if in appearance everything is a possibility for him, on average his behavior obeys specifiable, abstract, ineluctable functional laws” (115). For example, his I Ching pieces will never include a compositional event or structure not already laid out by the matrix Cage made for the piece.Attali explains:
Instead of toying with the limited nomenclature of the harmonic grid, he outlines processes of composition, experiments with the arrangement of free sounds…instruments no longer serve to produce the desired sound forms, conceived in thought before written down, but to monitor unexpected forms” (Attali 115; emphasis mine).
This “monitoring unexpected forms” sounds a lot like what Foucault identifies as the biopolitical management of risk. Attali even connects this form of statistical management of the aleatory to the management of life (i.e., to biopolitics as “the power over life” or the optimization of life for some, and the leaving of others to die). In the regime of “repetition,”
Science would no longer be the study of conflicts between representations, but rather the analysis of processes of repetition. After music, the biological sciences were the first to tackle this problem; the study of the conditions of the replication of life has led to a new scientific paradigm which, as we will see, goes to the essence of the problems surrounding Western technology’s transition from representation to repetition. Biology replaces mechanics” (Attali 89).
The study of representations is the will to truth—the confessional logic that aims to find the “truth” of one’s desire, identity, etc. The analysis of repetition, on the other hand, studies “the conditions of the replication of life,” or, in more Foucaultian terms, how a population reproduces itself. The shift from mechanics to biology is the shift from asking “How do things work?” to “What are the conditions of life itself? How does life make more life?” In biopolitics, power takes life as its object; thus, science too must take life as its object. Foucault is well-known for noticing this. Attali also notes this same shift: from spectacle to relations, from truth to statistical organization, from prohibition and discipline to administration, from punishment to the management of risk. What Attali contributes to the theorization of biopolitics is this: his explanation of the shift from sovereignty and panopticism to superpanopticism in terms of changing paradigms of musical organization, and his musical examples are clear and productive models for theorizing how biopolitical administration relates to gender, sexuality, and race—in fact, more clear than most of the models commonly used by feminist, queer, and critical race theorists.
So, now, I want to explain “harmony” to “frequency” as systems of musical organization. The differences between the two epistemes are evident in the difference between LMFAO’s compositional practices and traditional, tonal popular song structures. Traditional pop songs use tonal harmony to create a teleological narrative-like structure where exposition leads to rising action, climax, and denoument/resolution. The song progresses through lots of chord changes; these chord changes build tension, which is then released at the “big hit”. Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You” displays this nicely.
2:16-2:34 is a microcosm of the song’s entire harmonic development. There is a slow build to a climax, which is represented by the full-on flares from the floodlights in the background. In fact, you can literally seethe harmonic development in the use of these light banks. The verses don’t use the lights at all—they are set in various domestic scenes; the verses function only to develop the harmonic narrative. The lights make their first appearances in the choruses, which are sort of mini-climaxes, each failing to achieve full resolution, frustrating our desire for resolution, and thus making us crave it even more intensely. The 2:16-2:34 “microcosm” occurs in the song’s break, and this is the uber-climax: there’s the hit, which propels us to that moment of full resolution at the end of the song (the “you” at 3:26). Here, the lights flare at their greatest intensity, so we know this is the “money shot,” at least harmonically speaking. The point in rehearsing this example is to show how in traditional pop song structures, harmonic progressions provide the “energy” or “drive” that gives the song a sense of forward motion. Harmony is used to build tension and to pleasurably relase the tension at the song’s “big hit.”
LMFAO don’t use harmonic development to build tension. There is some very basic reliance on tonal functions (e.g., sol-do relationships), but the main tension in the song is built and released through what Daniel Barrow has called “The Soar,”and which I have written about here. They use rhythmic and timbral intensities to build and release tension, to propel the song forward toward its “money shot.” Let’s consider how they use rhythmic and timbral intensities to structure their two recent singles, “Party Rock Anthem” and “Sexy and I Know It”.
“Party Rock Anthem” is probably their most well-known track, so I’ll start with it:
The music starts at 1:25 with a drum track. At 1:40, some treble synths come in. The drum loop and the synth loop, along with another loop introduced in the first verse, are the basis for the entire song; the repetition of these elements (and not the progression among chords) gives it its structure. The intro is a mini-build to the first verse. The song starts with a drum track, and then shifts to a synth loop; at 1:54, they add vocals to the synth loop. At 2:09, they repeat from 1:54, but this time with a clap track. At 2:13, they add a synth sound that “soars” upward in pitch, sort of like the sound of a plane taking off. This is where the main build begins. We build to 2:22, at which point there is a pause, and then the main hit at 2:23, which is the start of the first verse. Here new lyrics and a new synth loop are introduced, and the drum track from the beginning returns. This build to the first verse is achieved by increasing timbral (the plane-launch synth) and rhythmic (handclap) intensity. The hit itself is marked by a change in timbre, melody, and rhythm. This same strategy is used in the build to the main climax in the break. For the sake of brevity, I’ll break this down into bullet points:
3:10-3:25 first repetition of chorus—this establishes the “base” from which the big build launches, or intensity = 0
3:25-3;40 second repetition of chorus—repetition effects a slight sense of tension, but not a lot
3:40-3:49 two repetitions of main melodic motive (in the treble synth) at “low” pitch
3:49-3:56 two repetitions of main melodic motive at higher pitch—both repetition and raise in pitch increases intensity/builds tension; “shuffilin, shuffilin” vocal at end of last phrase creates sense of “incomplete” resolution, which also builds tension
3:56-4:10 repetition of 3:40-3:56—repetition builds more tension
4:11 shift in instrumentals, entrance of male vocals. The inst. track is the basis on which the big “soar” happens
4:11-4:18 rapping a la the verses before 3:10, antecedent phrase to 4:18-25
4:18-4:25 rapping a la verses, consequent phrase to 4:11-18, but with addition of the instrumentals that will be used in the big build; this is more or less the “pivot” phrase into the big “soar”
Build really starts at 4:25, when the female vocals enter, along with hand claps.
4:25-4:33 first repetition of female vocals (two repetitions of the same line, “get up get down put your hands up to the sound,” each repetition coinciding with the main melodic motive in the synth); also, introduction of handclaps on each beat. Basic rate of repetition and intensity is established (e.g., quarter notes).
4:33-4:41 second repetition of female vocals, this time with a bass drum hit at the beginning of every other measure in the antecedent phrase; the consequent phrase doubletimes the “put your hands up to the sound”. SO, intensity is built rhythmically by upping the number of repetitions in a given amount of time.
4:41-4:47 doubletimes “get up, get up” in vocals, also adds descant synth from 3:40; adds ascending mid-voice synth in consequent phrase
4:47-4:55 this is the real build, the “soar” so to speak. There is:
· the continuation of the pitch and volume crechendo in that ascending synth from the previous section
· the exponential double-timing of the snare synth: eightnotes, to sixteenths, to thirty-secnds, to a roll
· repeated “woo”s on the quarter notes
· continuation of the main high-pitched synth hook, but bled “into the red”
and deflation– that ascending synth now descends; repetitions happen, but elements/layers either stay the same or drop out, rather than being added; distance introduced between repetitions rather than shortened.
Their song “Sexy and I Know It” uses the same strategy to build and climax, only this time the climax happens much earlier in the track:
0:30-0:36 first repetition of chorus, with antecedent and consequent phrases
0:37-0:43 second repetition
0:44-0:50 beginning of build; introduction of eight-note snares, and in last
few seconds, the synth hook is distorted a little, and a sort of “air” or “static” sound is introduced, which is carried over into:
0:51-0:54, where the snares go into 16thnotes, and pitches/sound quality of
melodic elements pushed further into red
0:55-0:57 vocals repeat short line “know it, know it”
0:58-10:59 pause, statement of lyrical hook “I’m sexy and I know it<’ after which is the main “hit,” the climax (something similar happens at 1:43)
Both of these tracks “tweak” and modify the timbre, both of specific synth sounds and by changing among different synth sounds. They layer more and more sounds on top of one another, and they intensify rhythms and the repetition of phrases in the lyrics. They build tension by increasing the “intensity” of timbres, rhythms, and repetitions, bringing these to an asymtope, dropping everything into a moment of silence, and then resolving everything with a big “hit.” This is not “development” to climax, but asymptotic intensification. As composers and producers, LMFAO rely on a paradigm of “frequency,” i.e., of “intensification or de-intensification.” This paradigm measures or “register[s] larger or smaller numbers of events in a given time” (Puar, Terrorist Assemblages xxi). Instead of progressing through hierarchically-organized functions (i.e., chords), LMFAO organize their song using techniques whereby “relationships between speed (how fast or slow time feels) pace (the tempo, rate, or intervals of registering events within time), and duration (the length of time within which these events are registered) alter or are altered” (Puar xxi). I’m citing from Jasbir Puar’s discussion of superpanoptic “assemblages” because I want to make absolutely clear the parallels between LMFAO’s style of musical organization and her understanding of the organization of race and sexuality as assemblages. If assemblages are characteristically “superpanoptic” because they are grounded in biopolitical regimes of “frequencies” and “intensifications,” and if LMFAO’s compositional strategies are grounded in the very same notions of “frequency” and “intensity,” then it follows that these compositional strategies are themselves characteristically superpanoptic. Or, more simply: “the soar”—the use of rhythmic and timbral intensity to build a song’s arc—is part of the broader “biopolitical” episteme.
I analyze music to point out the key features of “harmony” and “frequency” as regimes of power or political organization. Listening to them play out as systems of musical organization clarifies, IMHO, how exactly they work, and are distinct, as regimes of power-knowledge. Here is a really under-developed list of some things this harmony/frequency distinction helps us do/theorize/understand:
1 Frequency doesn’t need hierarchies, but harmony does.2. Limiting agent or type of relationship structure:a. In harmony, the hierarchy is the limiting agent: everything is arranged hierarchically around the tonic, which is the “centered” or “hegemonic” term, the centripetal point or common denominator in terms of which everything is expressed. So, hierarchy is the form relationships take in “harmonic” orders.b. In frequency, signals limit other signals. This is how analog synths work. This is how digital synths work (e.g., the signal from the trackpad, and also the limits of the trackpad, determine the range of alterations/effects that can be performed to a pitch, loop, etc.). There is not necessarily one central signal. So, the relationships are more obviously “networked.”i. But you can’t do anything that’s not on the sine wave/bell curve. The other limit is the literal mathematical limit: the asymtope. You can take the cowbell or handclap track and doubletime, quadrupletime, octuple time, whatever time it, following Zeno’s paradox down to the mathematical limit. SO, relationships can approach, but never reach zero. Perhaps this is a way of expressing the idea that one is never outside or without power.3 20thcentury music is all about management of the aleatory.a. Cage and chance.b. Tweaking and modulation as management of deviance: Cage’s prepared pianos, Moog’s synthesizers, Flash’s scratching, Korg’s KAOS pads, Cher’s and T-Pain’s AutoTuning, etc. So its not about achieving balance according to one measure/scale, but of producing acceptable, comprehensible “deviances” from whatever norm one is referencing (re: pitch, timbre, voice leading, etc.).c. IMHO Shannon Winnubsts’ work on the biopolitics of cool works out this idea of “acceptable deviances.” To be “cool” one needs to be just deviant enough to be avant-garde, but not too deviant (i.e., not kooky or weird).4 Conditions of replication:a. millennial and post-millennial music technology, IP law, and industry practices are all about the management and replication of data/data profiles.b. I think we also need to think about the story in the “Party Rock” video—it’s based on zombie narratives (Walking Dead, 28 Days Later), and turns on the idea that a song’s hook can “infect” people like a virus, turning everyone into “shufflin” drones (sorta like Thriller, in a way). So there’s something about “infection” to be theorized—Puar does some of this with her idea of “contagion.”5 Value judgments (aesthetics, ethics):a. So the fine art/craft distinction is a hierarchical one, as is the serious/pop one. This is a “harmonic” model of aesthetic judgment.b. How would we make aesthetic judgments about “intensities”? Or “frequencies”? Do we need to think in terms of muting and intensification? In terms of degree of modulation? Is this perhaps what theorists of “remix culture” are trying to get at?
SOOO, yeah, that’s a LOT of stuff I just threw at you. It’s all very, VERY ROUGH. I need to think through all this a lot more carefully, and if you have any thoughts or comments, I’d really appreciate them! I have the sense I may be on to something, but then I may well not be.
 “Difference is the principle for order” (Attali 62)